Natural Wine is Booming.
From ancient dinner tables to your next dinner party, interest grows in this ever present technique. Here is a quick rundown of this low intervention style of wine making.
by Carlos | May 12th, 2022
There’s no question that Natural Wine has gained popularity the last couple of years, we get asked about it everyday in the shop. But what makes the process of “natural wine” different from conventional or mass produced wine? What defines a “natural wine”? And do they always taste better? There’s a lot to discuss when it comes to the history, viticultural practices, and rules followed in the making of natural wine but we’ll try to keep this really brief to give the reader and curious first-timer a few basic facts about natural wine.
New Fad or History in a bottle?
While natural wine is trending, it is not something new. In fact, it is the ancient way of making wine, hundreds of years ago before industrialization and mechanization in the vineyards and the development in synthetic additives became common in wine as well as the use of herbicides and pesticides that grew in popularity after World War II.
So what is the definition of “natural wine”? Up until 2022 there was no official or written set of rules for natural wine, but through decades of lobbying from like-minded wine producers in France they achieved the first label certification of natural wine in any country, called “Vin Méthode Nature.” While this is still in its infancy, it works more as a private label for this group of vintners to use and, even though it is approved by the Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité (INAO), France’s official agricultural organization, they do not regulate or enforce it.
And not everyone agrees with some of the finer details of these rules, for example, there are producers that believe that nothing should be added to a wine, including sulfites while some believe that a small amount at bottling is acceptable. Therefore there are two different logos within the “Vin Méthode Nature” label to distinguish a product with no added sulfites and the others with no more than 30ml/L.
What Exactly Makes A Wine Natural?
From how the grapes are grown to how it’s aged and bottled
Natural Wine Defined: The Grapes
The difference between “natural” wine and “conventional” wine starts in the vineyards, with a philosophy in organic farming (organic certification is a must to apply for the aforementioned label in France, although some producers that make natural wine decide to forgo the cost of paying for certification). Some producers go even further with biodynamic farming which takes an even more holistic approach by creating a whole ecosystem in the vineyard and taking lunar cycles into account on their decisions in the fields. The grapes must also be hand-picked with no use of machinery in the fields.
Natural Wine Defined: Fermantation & Bottling
The wine should be fermented with naturally occurring yeast (whatever wild yeasts adhere to the skin of the grapes in the vineyards or is present in the cellar, no commercial yeast allowed). No other additions like the ones used by “conventional” wine should be used (ie: sugar, coloring, tannins, acids, fake oak flavor, stabilizers, or most all of the 60 approved additives that American winemakers can use, for example), except for the slight use of sulfur dioxide at bottling.
A very much discussed practice but some producers think it’s beneficial to add a small amount, anywhere from 10-35 ppm, much less than the 350 ppm allowed in the US at bottling to preserve the flavor of the wine.
Minimal intervention in the cellar with no use of “traumatic physical techniques” such as filtration, flash-pasteurization, reverse osmosis, and thermo-vinification (heating red grape must to extract more color or remove undesirable characteristics of certain grape varietals, for example pyrazines). Some producers also advocate that these wines should not use any new oak as well.
The Result: History in a Glass, The Future in a Drink
All of this produces a wine that winemakers feel is closer to a natural, living, agricultural product instead of a mass produced and formulated wine that is manipulated to taste the same every single vintage.
As far as flavor difference between natural and conventional wine it really depends on what direction the winery wants to go, there are some natural wines that tastes just like a normal wine and perfectly fits into the appellation where it was made. And then there are those that embrace the more “wild” side of natural wine.
A Deeper Dive
For simplicity sake, we’ll quickly touch on the booming style of natural wine that sees no-oak treatment which makes it lighter-textured and leans toward a more refreshing style of red wine. These wines might employ some carbonic maceration techniques as well (leaving the grapes un-crushed and sealed in tank under pressure so the grapes start fermentation without oxygen and start to slowly crush by their own weight, spending less time on the skins, thus producing a less tannic and more fruit-forward wine).
A more youthful flavor will be present with a fruitier acidity that makes up the structure of the wine due to the softer tannins these wines usually carry. Common descriptors for the fruit profile would be “juicy”, “fresh”, and “crunchy” as opposed to the more “meaty” and “fleshy” or “ripe” you would get in more conventional wine.
The lighter body of natural wine also provides a great option for drinking red wine in the heat of summer, “chillable” red wines are becoming more and more popular and seem to go hand-in-hand with natural wine.
The quality of domestic natural wine has made great improvements in just the past 5 years with cleaner fermentations and more consistency vintage after vintage.
It’s an exciting time for wine drinkers as we are also seeing more interest into lesser known indigenous grapes throughout Europe and finding natural wines in regions like the Canary Islands, Bulgaria, Croatia, and more traditional places like the Piedmont region of Italy and even Port producers like Niepoort dipping their feet into light-bodied natural red wines.
As more producers venture into the natural wine movement and the selection continues to grow you can count on Bine & Vine to keep a rotating selection of quality natural wines that we feel expresses the spirit of the natural wine movement.